The U.S. has some of the best special operations units in the world, but they can't do everything on their own. The American military relies on allied special operators from places like Britain, Iraq, and Israel to collect intelligence and kill enemy insurgents and soldiers. Here are 6 of those special operations commands.
A quick note on the photos: Many allied militaries are even more loathe to show the faces of their special operators than the U.S. The photos we've used here are, according to the photographers, of the discussed special operations forces, but we cannot independently verify that the individuals photographed are actually members of the respective clandestine force.
1. SAS and SBS
A British Special Forces member from the 22nd Special Air Service at Hereford, England, uses binoculars to locate a target down range.
(U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Rick Bloom)
These could obviously be two separate entries, but we're combining them here because they're both British units that often operate side-by-side with U.S. forces, just with different missions and pedigrees. The Special Air Service pulls from the British Army and focuses on counter-terrorism and reconnaissance. The Special Boat Service does maritime counter-terrorism and amphibious warfare (but will absolutely stack bodies on land, too).
Both forces have deployed with U.S. operators around the world, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan where they were part of secretive task forces that hunted top Taliban members, ISIS, and Iraqi insurgents.
2. Sayeret Matkal
The Sayeret Matkal does all sorts of hush-hush missions for Israel, everything from intelligence gathering to direct action to hostage rescue.
(Israel Defense Forces)
Israel's Sayeret Matkal has generated rumors and conjecture for decades, and it's easy to see why when you look at their few public successes. They rescued 103 Jewish hostages under gunpoint in Uganda after a plane hijacking. They hunted down the killers who attacked Israel's 1972 Munich Olympic team, killing 11 coaches and athletes. The commandos in the unit are skilled in deception, direct action, and intelligence gathering.
The U.S. is closely allied with Israel and Sayeret Matkal is extremely good at gathering intelligence, which is often shared with the U.S. One of their most public recent successes came when they led a daring mission to install listening devices in ISIS buildings, learning of a plan to hide bombs in the battery wells of laptops.
3. French Special Operations Command
French Army special operations troops conduct a simulated hostage rescue during a 2018 demonstration.
(Domenjod, CC BY-SA 4.0)
French special operations units are even more close-mouthed than the overall specops community, but they have an army unit dedicated to intelligence gathering and anti-terrorism, a navy unit filled with assault forces and underwater demolitions experts, and an air force unit specializing in calling in air strikes and rescuing isolated personnel behind enemy lines.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis has said that France deployed its special operators to Syria in April where they helped defeat ISIS.
4. Kommando Spezialkräfte
A German Special Forces soldier lines his sites on a target 500 meters away, and awaits direction from an International Special Training Centre instructor to engage the target in 2006.
(U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Gina Vaile-Nelson)
Germany's Kommando Spezialkrafte is a unit of elite commandos split into four companies with five platoons each, and each platoon specializes in a specific mission types, from airborne operations to sniper to polar. A support company provides medical, maintenance, and logistics support.
The commandos have reportedly deployed to Syria in recent years to fight ISIS. And while Germany is fairly tight-lipped about the unit, they have confirmed that the unit was deployed to Iraq for a few years in the early 2000s. On these missions, they help U.S.-led coalitions achieve success.
5. Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service
Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) operators demonstrate forward repelling during the 2nd School graduation in Baghdad, Iraq, Oct. 1, 2018. The ceremony included a ribbon cutting for the repelling tower, which will be used by future 2nd school classes.
(U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Abe McNatt)
The Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service was created by the U.S. and, oddly, does not fall within the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, making this one of the few special operations units that isn't part of the traditional military. It has three special operations forces brigades and, in recent years, has largely focused on eliminating ISIS-controlled territory and the surviving forces.
The operators have also fought against other groups like Al Qaeda-Iraq. The unit was originally formed in 2003, meaning it has only existed while Iraq was at war with insurgents, so the force has operated almost exclusively within Iraq's borders. It earned high marks in 2014 when its troops maintained good order and fought effectively against ISIS while many of the security forces were falling apart.
6. Afghan National Army Commando Corps
An Afghan National Army Special Operations Commando instructor assesses Commando recruits in training as they perform security duties during a training exercise in Camp Commando, Kabul, Afghanistan, May 6, 2018.
(U.S. Army Master Sgt. Felix Figueroa)
Afghanistan's National Army Commando Corps is one of the great bright spots in its growing military. While it's had growing pains and the Taliban has infiltrated it at some times, it has a reputation for professionalism and skill and has led the way on top-level operations. It's even capable of the rapid nighttime raids that U.S. forces became famous for when they were in the lead in that country.
The Afghan president ordered the size of the unit be doubled between 2018 and 2020 because the soldiers, all expert marksmen and commandos, have a reputation for getting results. Afghanistan also has the Ktah Khas, a counter-terrorism unit known for daring raids like their 2016 rescue of 59 prisoners in a Taliban hideout.
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